Marketing translators use immersion strategies to stay up with language evolution

Last month, I gave a presentation about immersion strategies for expatriates at the 57th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association. Anyone writing for international audiences, including translators, faces the challenge of keeping up with language evolution in the target market. Otherwise, their style quickly goes from stellar to stale.

Good marcom and advertising copy is designed to evoke emotions. Emotions spark action. Recreating that effect for a different country means the writer has to be familiar with idiomatic expressions and the tone of voice used by various target groups in the local market. Marketers and copywriters need to connect with their audiences at eye level, talk the way they talk, use the words they use. If you’re translating an ad campaign for Generation Z consumers, you’d better be up to date on your youth lingo. Likewise, if you are translating a B2B website, you should know which Anglicisms and neologisms improve your copy – and when you’re overdoing it.

Unfortunately, staying on top of their native language can be a challenge for translators who have traded their home country for a foreign country home.

Things that shape our understanding of modern language – radio and TV chatter, street conversations, newspaper and magazine articles, billboards, print ads and numerous other native language influences – are no longer part of their daily routine. And just like a muscle that doesn’t get exercised regularly, language skills can atrophy after a while.

Language isn’t static

Language has been evolving since the beginning of time. Television, migration, advertising, technology and modern lifestyle have sped up this process. Translators who tune out of these developments risk eventually producing work that sounds obsolete to native ears.

In my ATA presentation, I shared a number of resources to help my fellow German expats keep up with their mother tongue, including specific

  • podcasts
  • TV shows
  • apps
  • websites
  • … and much more

Besides the dominant English influence of globalization, migration is leaving its mark on the German language. A fifth of the German population currently has a migration background. The changes affect both vocabulary and grammar. Loan words from other languages – particularly Arabic and Turkish – are increasingly finding their way into everyday conversations from Hamburg to Munich.

In addition, new terms are added to the German vocabulary every year. Some of them started out as media or advertising buzzwords but have since become part of mainstream conversations. Here are just a few examples:

  • Wutbürger: A person who is angry at the political establishment
  • merkeln: To do nothing, to make no decision and voice no opinion
  • Gutmensch: Do-gooder, a person with a perceived sense of superiority over others that is based on his or her own elevated standards of morality and/or lifestyle
  • Smombie: A person who is so absorbed in his or her smartphone that he or she doesn’t pay attention to his or her surroundings (thus walking around like a zombie)

Not only are new words being added to a language, but old words are being abandoned, or their use may change. A few weeks ago, for example, a German court ruled that the word “bekömmlich” (meaning tasty with a connotation of wholesome) may no longer be used in beer advertisements because of its health-related association. Those kinds of details are important to know for translators working in the advertising industry!

Don’t buy into old doctrines

Obviously, businesses want to ensure that their marketing or advertising copy resonates with their target audiences. Therefore, many companies cling to the so-called target-country principle. According to this principle, only linguists who live in the target market are hired to work on a translation project.

To be fair, there is merit to this theory. It ensures that the translator is fully immersed in the target language and culture, which is particularly important in marketing and advertising. However, in this day and age, it is perfectly possible for anyone to remain immersed in his or her native language anywhere on this planet as long as there is an Internet connection available.

What’s more, someone who lives in the target country may not have the necessary insights to pick up the finer innuendos of the original materials provided by the client. Sometimes, knowledge of the source (usually the client’s) culture is just as important as knowledge of the target (usually the end customer’s) culture when you’re trying to pitch something. A translator’s physical residence outside his or her native country may thus be seen as a strength rather than a weakness.

When it comes to writing effective marketing copy in a foreign language, what matters is finding someone who can tailor the original message for the target market in a way that conveys the right message and speaks to the intended audience. By following an active immersion strategy, translators can rise above the dogma of the target-country principle and continue to produce translations that are on par with their native-country colleagues – no matter if they’ve lived 10, 20, or 50 years abroad.


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